The current trouble in the Ukraine and on the Crimean Peninsula should make us pause and remember how quickly large armed conflicts can grow out of smaller ones. Is 2014 really so different from 1914? Or from 1947, when Wolfgang Borchert penned tonight’s story?
Then There’s Only One Thing To Do, by Wolfgang Borchert [10:06]
The German author Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) had a keen sense of the macabre, and his double suicide together with Henriette Vogel on the shores of the Little Wannsee, only a few short miles from where I type these lines, attests to his sense of the dramatic. But the story of “The Beggar Woman of Locarno” is not simply spooky, but conceals a great many mysteries and contradictions. For example, who else but the Marquise would ever provide a beggar with a bed of straw on the floor of the castle’s most luxurious room? Why does the beggar return at the moment she does? And why does the Marquis find his eternal rest in that particular place, rather than in a more suitable venue? Questions upon questions that go to show that, with Kleist, what we get is never what we see.
August Strindberg was married three times, and these experiences – combined with his various other encounters with women, married or otherwise, over the decades – provided him with enough material for an entire literary career. The book he devoted entirely to the topic of matrimony – Giftas (Married), published in two volumes between 1884 and 1886 – contains this shiny jewel about a selfish man’s geriatric epiphany. Say what you like about Strindberg as a person, but he certainly knew his way around men, women – and marriage.
The most everyday of objects can be imbued with meanings that can extend infinitely beyond our own meager experiences and imaginations. That’s why we buy antiques – even such a seemingly harmless piece of bric-à-brac as a dusty inscribed bottle – at our own risk.
We like to imagine we live in liberal times, and yet it’s hard to imagine an era when it was easier to “épater les bourgeois” than it is today. This particularly applies to children’s literature, which has as many do’s and don’t’s as it ever had, just in other places. Could the original “Pippi Longstocking” be published today? Perhaps, but I doubt it would have become a bestseller, nor that it would have found a place in virtually every school library in the world – and not only because of the allegedly offensive language. So while subversive children’s authors make fans among their target audience, they don’t always make friends in the adult world, as the hero of tonight’s story finds out – much to his own amusement.
This story has had a special meaning to me ever since I first read it on a rainy afternoon in Poitiers, France a few decades ago. It’s still just the thing for a rainy afternoon – or evening – in Poitiers or anywhere else. Sadly, I couldn’t find out much about the author, except that he penned and edited scary stories, and wrote science fiction scripts for BBC Radio, so I’ve used the cover of one of his compilations in lieu of an author’s photo. If you’ve got one kicking around in your steamer trunk somewhere, please let me know.
Wer heute in Berlin wohnt und unter den vielen Unzulänglichkeiten der heutigen Stadtverwaltung leiden muss (Stichwörter: Großflughafen und Großbaustelle Invalidenstraße, von dem Dreck auf den Straßen und Gehwegen ganz zu schweigen), wird möglicherweise mit einem lachenden und einem weinenden Auge auf die Stadt, wie sie Mark Twain 1891 erlebte, zurückblicken. Aber gemütlicher und praktischer als die alte kaiserliche Metropole ist das heutige Berlin allemal. Und wer braucht schon einen Virchow, Helmholtz oder Mommsen, wenn wir Günther Jauch haben…?